Note from PSHeretic: At first I thought this writing probably had nothing to do with a spiritual journey — a.k.a. pilgrim, seeker, heretic. However, as I pondered on it I thought “Yep! It is surely a part of my journey.” Our pilgrimage is immersed in family, and I don’t know that there is anything more sacred than death (more about why I say that -later) and remembering, honoring, and carry the spirit of our loved ones with us as the journey continues. So, here it is!
My Dad’s Legacy
Big Cypress Bayou Paddle
October 21, 2013
I have wanted to do this paddle for probably the past two years — at least since I got the kayak. Dad is on my mind and in my heart as the bayou was certainly his sacred space, his Holy Ground, and I am one week away from the first anniversary of his death. He loved this land and these waters – the wetlands of Cypress Bayou. He knew the bayous –Black, Little and Big Cypress — like the back of his hand. Many times he has taken me up and down the channels and into their inner recesses. He could find the remotest areas for his trotlines. The last time we were out on the bayou before his death we were in Black Cypress. The water level was up, and we were out of the channel in a maze of Cypress trees. Some of them were so close that the boat occasionally got hung up as we weaved our way through. I had no idea how to get out of the swamps and back to the main channel, but he always knew where he was, where he was going, and how to get there. I always felt safe with my dad in the boat. I surely do miss him! I had told Dad numerous times that I wanted to do this paddle. His response was always, “Just don’t tell me when you do it. Just show up.” Dad was a worrier. I can understand Dad’s worry, as often, when I know what my sons are doing – car trip, airplane journey – I will worry a bit. Well, Dad, don’t worry today. I know you are watching.
Moving down the bayou I see evidence of times come and gone. The initial channel going east from Jefferson is wider than the channel back toward the west, a testament to more boat traffic today as well as in the past. The remains of a Civil War ordnance magazine are on the right about a third of a mile down the bayou. The channel becomes even wider at what is still known as the “turning basin.” This is where mid-nineteenth century stern-wheelers that made their way up the Mississippi into the Red River, through Caddo Lake, and up Big Cypress Bayou loaded and unloaded cargo and turned to head back to the Mississippi. The broad channel is a reminder of the days when Jefferson was a bustling port and known as the “Gateway to Texas.” Today, the bayou is quiet.
Quiet and flat best describe the water, as it is not moving at all. This is definitely a paddle trip, not a float trip in a steadily moving current. The Texas drought continues to take its toll on our waterways, and the Big Cypress is no exception. The water level is as low as I have seen it since 1986 – 26 years ago – when Dad and Mom made their home on the bayou. The Bald Cypress tree roots are sprawling and gaping where once they were covered and nourished by the waters. I see the collateral damage of the drought as well – lots of dead wood as trees have fallen. At one point a very large tree has fallen into and across the bayou making it difficult to maneuver. Not only is the bayou affected by the drought, but it is also impacted by both our conservation efforts and ultimately water usage.
In 1959 the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Ferrell’s Bridge Dam on Big Cypress Bayou. The dam is located eight and a half miles west of Jefferson, Texas. The dam, a project of the Flood Control Act of 1946, created Ferrell’s Creek Reservoir (now known as Lake O’the Pines). Additional purposes of wildlife conservation, recreation, and water supply were added during construction. The lake provides water supply storage for the Northeast Texas Municipal Water District serving six towns in the surrounding area and the city of Longview. The drought and the municipal water usage results in very little water, if any, being released from the lake. Approximately 14 miles east of Jefferson on Big Cypress is Caddo Lake State Park and the entrance to Caddo Lake, the largest natural lake in the South. Since the beginning of the current drought, anytime Dad saw the current running in the bayou, he assumed that “someone is pumping water out of Caddo.” I have no way of substantiating that, but Dad believed it, and it seems to be a likely assumption. As more water is held and used for municipal and industrial consumption, what will be its impact on Dad’s beloved Cypress Bayou?
As I continue to paddle one thing I do not see is people, not a living soul of the human kind. I have seen a small whitetail deer jump and scurry into the woods. Apparently it was lying on the ground and my passing disturbed it. A kayak is quiet, but not always quiet enough! There have been turtles on logs, most I could see, but some I only heard as they “plopped” into the water at my approach. When the kayak is still – for a drink or simply to take in my surroundings – I hear the mosquitos buzzing my head. Even with the drought, they are alive and well! I know the forest is home to a plethora of wildlife species – fox and gray squirrels, armadillos, cottontails, bobcats, cardinals, barred owl, snakes – for I have seen them, but not today. Heck, I have even eaten them. When I was a kid, venison steaks and squirrel stew were frequent fare. One time Dad prepared soft-shell turtle and armadillo just because he wanted us to try it. I didn’t like it!
Today my constant and only companion is the Great Blue Heron that stays slightly ahead of me. How many times my dad and I have watched this large bird picking his way along the shore, stalking and then suddenly grabbing his prey. He will walk in the shallow water along the shore for a bit and then he might go up the bank and seemingly walk around a large stump or protrusion in the water before returning to the shallows. In all my experience and as quiet as I can be, I have never been able to pass the bird on the shore. He will always fly across the water before me. Such is the case today as the bird has stayed just ahead of me on the water – my spirit guide for the day. Perhaps the presence of Dad!
I move through the water with a slow, steady paddle, but paddle I must in order to move. The water is clear and greener in color as opposed to the muddy reddish color it often acquires after a rain and the subsequent run off. My dad fished these waters for over sixty-five years. Again, he put food on the table – channel and flathead or Opelousas catfish (my favorite), bass, crappie, and the occasional buffalo or carp. These last two were my least favorite!
Most of the shoreline is higher banks with carved out bluffs being ample evidence of higher water levels in the past. The land supports a mixed pine and hardwood forest. Bald cypress, water tupelo, and river birch are predominant along the waterline with a variety of oak, sweetgum, and elm in the recesses. Occasionally I see an area that has been cleared. Logging and the timber industry pose another threat to the hardwood bottomlands in the Cypress Bayou. Dad hated it when loggers would come in and, as he called it, “rape the land” leaving a mangled area of dirt ruts and damaged smaller trees and vegetation. Although approached many times, he never allowed the timber on his property to be cut. I am particularly awed by the Bald Cypress. From their broad base they tower like cathedral spires surrounded by rows and clumps of shrouded pilgrims and worshipers – the abundant cypress knees — come to pay homage to their inspired beauty. I remember Dad often saying that he went to church on the bayou as he rarely attended a church service. I now know what he meant.
Along the banks I see the occasional river camp house or modern home complete with floating walks and docks. It is obvious that some of the dilapidated river houses with rusted and rotting docks have long been abandoned. A rusted out school bus that I would imagine was outfitted as a fishing or hunting camp house rests precariously on the bank. As I approach the area where Black Cypress flows into Big Cypress, approximately five and a half miles east of Jefferson, there is a distinct change in the water. It is now reddish and muddy, no doubt from the rains and run off further up the Black Cypress. The junction of Black and Big Cypress, known as Thompson’s Camp, is a popular launching area for boating and fishing. Also, there are some fish jumping in the area. From the sound of the “splash,” I would say rather large fish. But you never know, by the time you hear the splash the fish is back in the water.
The final mile to Dad’s house is a broad channel with lots of new development on the left bank. When Mom and Dad purchased their property here in 1986 there was only one other house on this stretch of the bayou. Now there are fourteen! The right bank, according to Dad, is part of a hunting club and is not developed. Dad’s house is at the very end of the road. As I said earlier, he could find the remotest places! It is 4:07 p.m. as I maneuver up to Dad’s dock. I have been in the water slightly over four hours. I launched at Jefferson around noon and have paddled 7.17 miles per the GPS. (Of course, I forgot to set the GPS trip feature until I had paddled an estimated quarter of a mile!) It has been a great paddle! The temperature, whatever it is, has been ideal with the sky overcast but no sprinkles. The company – my memories of Dad and the presence of the bayou that he loved – the best! I started to abort the whole trip when it began to sprinkle slightly at the launch. I am so glad I didn’t. Thanks, Dad, for the journey! And, for the legacy of your love for family, this land, and these waters – all sacred spaces, all Holy Ground!